Annie Goldson won New Zealand's Aotearoa Film & Television Award for Best Director – Documentary for Brother Number One.
Director-producer Annie Goldson began making films in the early 1980s, focusing on political and social issues around the world. Goldson’s work has taken her to dozens of countries, but as a New Zealander she often looks for the stories of her home country, including documenting the lives of Afghan immigrant boys, second-wave feminism and, most recently, the story of one New Zealander’s fight for justice in Cambodia decades after his brother was tortured and killed in 1978. From 1975 – 1979, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed more than two million people in the name of their communist regime.
Goldson spoke with us about accountability, religion, photography and the emotional toils of filming Brother Number One, which screens June 19 – 21 at Film Society as part of this year's Human Rights Watch Film Festival:
Brother Number One has a lot to say about photography as an evidentiary medium, not only because it’s a documentary, but also because of how the Khmer Rouge documented the victims at S21. Can you comment on the significance of this?
Photography is very important; it’s reflexive of the film as a whole. The Khmer Rouge documented prisoners meticulously, which is not atypical of regimes. It suggests the order that Comrade Duch insisted on and it had a sadistic function to prove to Pol Pot that people were killed. Photos are also used to record happy times, domestic photos, so photography is important in that sense too. The Khmer Rouge photographer we interviewed was so young when he was trained and subject to what he was subject to. I’m not saying I have sympathy for him, but had he taken a bad photo he would have been killed, so the pressure to be a good photographer was great. His entire story and the scenes with him in the film are quite chilling and obviously he can’t stop taking photos. Photography became one of the themes for evidence of happy times and terrible circumstances.
Religion plays a role in shaping parts of this film. Christianity suggests to forgive Comrade Duch, whereas some people wanted to ask him if he believed in Karma…
It’s quite fascinating. We’ve shown this film widely and one question we always get is: Did you get an answer to the Karma question? Does Duch believe in Karma? It’s a fundamental, spiritual question. Rob’s lawyer wouldn’t let Rob ask it in court because Duch tends to philosophize and he would have used up too much time in court, but the significance is quite profound. It raises the question: What does justice and accountability mean in a Buddhist sense and what does it mean in a Western court sense? Many people were cynical about the fact that Duch converted to Christianity because in Buddhism you can’t ask for forgiveness. The Christian community is probably the only one that could accept him because he asked for forgiveness and they believe it is given. He was working for World Vision. My sense is that World Vision knew about his past, even though he hid it well for years. Lots of Cambodians tend to work for World Vision because it’s a company where you can further your career. You may start as a driver or translator and if you become a Christian you can make a career of it. It could have been a career plan too—we don’t know what’s in Duch’s heart—but working for World Vision does seem convenient.
On the whole Duch had to admit that he had done these acts because there were prisons full of evidence that showed he had. He walked the line between admission and that he was just following orders. He never wavered on that for the nine-month trial. The one moment he does get emotional was when one of the painters was giving a testimony. I actually think it’s a subtle thing I can’t prove, but the painter did a portrait of Pol Pot. If he had done a bad painting, odds are Duch would have been killed too. So Duch may have had something of a relationship with him. I also heard they would talk about famous painters while the painter was working on Pol Pot’s portrait. That’s the only time we saw genuine remorse in Duch and I looked at nine months of footage from the courts. He’s obviously a complex character.
It’s hard to say how Cambodians feel about the court since it’s a Buddhist country. You see how people have responded differently to the Khmer Rouge and that’s an issue around religion because Buddhists believe the perpetrators are going to get their comeuppance at some point, so why spend so much money on a trial when others are needy? For anyone interested in international justice, you have to ask how Western mechanisms, such as the court, rubs up against other cultures. Rwanda is facing similar questions with their recent trials. It’s complex. There’s also such a high degree of post-traumatic stress in Cambodia.
The court system in Cambodia is kind of a wreck, but I didn’t go into that. There’s terrible corruption and political interference. But they do see some accountability. Justice is fundamental.
How did you find this story and what drew you to the Hamills?
I trained as a documentary filmmaker in New York from 1981 – 1993 and then I went back to New Zealand. I’ve made six or seven feature documentaries that engage with social issues; it’s something I keep returning to and there’s more and more need for them. Rob had been working with another producer and they came to me because of my prior work so that’s how I became a producer too. Rob Hamill is kind of a household name in New Zealand because he’s a record-holding rower, so Rob's journey became a powerful way to tell an important story.
In New Zealand, like most countries, there’s a lot of nationalism so the fact that there’s never been any justice for a Kiwi (Rob’s brother Kerry), this film documents that for New Zealanders. The idea of having a Western figure at the center is controversial in some circles, but I never felt resentment or anything from Cambodians. They embraced Rob as a fellow victim. The doubts of focusing on a westerner come from critics, but it’s a great way of looking at our broader history and a point of identification for many people. I didn’t want to do something that was tabloid-ish. I wanted to include Cambodian voices and Western Cold War history.
One thing I really liked is that Rob had never been to Cambodia and we get to see him go there for the first time. People were very open to Rob and really wanted to help, even some of the perpetrators. Some of whom are flourishing. They often just roll over when a new regime is in place. There were so many people involved in the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian government only wants to try five people for the deaths of two million. Even though you can’t try everyone, there are certainly more than five people responsible. Some of the perpetrators are now close to the prime minister and some are actually in the government. So there’s tension between the court and the government. It’s an ongoing story.
Is there any way of knowing where they took Kerry’s remains?
Not really. Most likely there were some eyewitnesses. Pol Pot was smart enough to know you shouldn’t be caught with Western remains. From what we know, the westerners at Tuol Sleng were burned on the periphery of Tuol Sleng and they could have been burned alive. There was one guard that claims at least one of the westerners had been alive when they burned the bodies, but he lost confidence at the courts to say that. There was a place on a grassy strip next to a gas station where Rob brought some water and sand from New Zealand and he did have ceremony on that patch of grass to say goodbye. It’s really an impossible task to know for certain where Kerry’s remains are. No one knew specifics of what Kerry faced.
How long did you work on this film?
It took a long time to edit and we shot a lot of material. We really began in 2009 and then were dependent on the beats of the court when Rob testified and then the verdict. Those were the turning points in the film. Our two trips to Cambodia were around those events. In between we went to Australia, the United States and England. The editing took six to seven months. And we finished in 2011.
How has the film been received so far?
It’s done very well in New Zealand. We had a theatrical release there. It won some awards at our national awards ceremony. Internationally we’re optimistic. It has done reasonably well in festivals. The Human Rights Watch folks have been fantastic. It’s quite interesting coming from New Zealand because we’re not exotic. The Maori stories travel well, but in the international community the film is a New Zealand story and a Cambodia story. We’re like being Canadian but worse because we’re not exotic enough in the American market. You just have to remind yourself why you did the film and not get too caught up in the machine. It’s important to just get the film seen. When people see the film they’re very blown away by it. It’s getting through the gatekeepers to the audience. Audiences seem to be uniformly affected by the film whether in Amsterdam, Melbourne, France and hopefully New York.
Has there been a showing in Cambodia?
No, we’re just figuring that out. We have just produced a version with Khmer subtitles so the film will be comprehesible to Cambodians that don't speak English and we hope to travel there with that version.
What were some of the challenges during filming?
There’s always just the sheer labor of filmmaking—long hours, hot climate—but we were facilitated by one of our line producers and she just found everyone that we wanted to talk to. One of the challenges was dealing with the emotions that inevitably arise. I had to deal with quite a lot. Filmmaking develops a momentum, so ensuring the emotional well-being of the subjects was important. Cambodia has a reasonable infrastructure. Some of the roads are not passable and remote, so the crew had to deal with those things, but it’s always quite fun to form a team and develop these relationships.
One thing I found fascinating was working with the translators. I find that dynamic quite incredible, being monolingual myself. The dynamic, particularly in a country like Cambodia, is interesting because no translator was untouched by the histories. I wrote this piece "Trauma in the Translator” about how translation as a process is never a perfect vehicle—it’s refracted through emotion and memory. It gives an odd rhythm because everyone is waiting for what has been said and Rob is desperate to know something but he has to wait for the translator. I found that process really interesting and so telling about human communication.
Are you working on anything now?
Yes, an Afghanistan project. I’m looking at what New Zealand has been doing in Afghanistan. We don’t really know because we can’t afford to have reporters there. We’re proud of our military but still quite anti-militarist, so we really don’t know anything that’s going on in Afghanistan. Something like 90 percent of New Zealanders were opposed to joining the U.S. in Iraq. Some argue that our Government and military want to draw closer to the U.S., so we’ve been doing more in Afghanistan to ensure that relationship develops. We’re working with the one New Zealand journalist who keeps going back. And we’re actually looking specifically at the Maori New Zealanders and what they feel in the field, because a lot of them wonder if Afghanistan is just another colonial war. The film is called He Toki Huna.